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Thomas Jefferson, landscape architect. Part IV: Washington

East Capitol Street, Washington.

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By now we know that the 45th president of the US is not somebody who is going to spend a whole lot of attention to the relation between state and landscape. Still, there remains much to learn from the landscape architect/president. The development of the nation’s capital shows how the versatility of landscape—unlike the firmness of architecture—allows for a unification of conflicting political ideals.

For 26 years of his life, Jefferson’s energies were devoted to promoting and perfecting the new capital. Repugnant as the evils of city life were to him, he must have made a great concession in his anti-urban philosophy to devote so much time to creating the national capital. During the summer of 1790—while George Washington was the first president—two issues paralysed Congress: the future location of the nation’s capital and the question of how America’s finances and debts should be handled, “two of the most irritating questions,” as Jefferson remarked. With great effort, spending years of careful politics, he managed to broker a deal combining the two, by exchanging the south’s acceptance to pay for a larger part of the debts, for a favourable location of the new capital: on the Potomac River along the Maryland and Virginia border, far away from the commercial and urban centres, and thus expressing the vision of the United States as an agrarian republic.

At that time, professional city planning had not yet emerged from the art of architecture and science of military engineering which had for centuries been responsible for the design of European cities. The city of Washington was the first attempt to plan a national capital for a democratic form of government on a site deliberately picked for that purpose. The design of the city was to express the government and its (lack of) power. Thus, Jefferson, as a Republican, wanted it to be unobtrusive, while the Federalist President Washington envisioned a grand an imposing city.

The sketch Thomas Jefferson made for Washington.

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Jefferson’s first memorandum about the future capital stated that it should be laid out on a rectangular grid that would grow organically over time, spreading out from its centre. The city should be a city of gardens, interspersed with squares for public walks. He laid out the programme, specified as “a territory not exceeding 10. miles square to be located by metes and bounds. […] I should propose [the streets] to be at right angles & that no street be narrower than 100. feet, with foot-ways of 15. feet where a street is long & level.” Obviously, his conception of the future city was based on the conventional gridiron plan with which he was familiar. He wrote down precise rules and regulations, foreseeing almost every problem that would be encountered.

The L’Enfant plan of Washington DC, 1791.

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By contrast, the magnificent city that Washington and his chosen designer Charles L’Enfant dreamed up, would proclaim a mighty, dominant central government. The scheme that L’Enfant submitted, a radial plan superimposing the grid that Jefferson had proposed, was no other than André Le Nôtre’s design for the gardens of Versailles. However, a year later L’Enfant was fired, because of his stubborn refusal to submit to the authority of the commissioners, and Jefferson was left with the responsibility to complete the already accepted plan. With L’Enfant’s plan being so enormous that the city grew in small clusters around the important buildings instead of around a single centre, Jefferson’s improvement was to work on roads to link these separate areas.

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Even before the first houses had been built, Jefferson had suggested lining the avenues and streets with trees—after all, a house could always be erected quicker than a tree would grow to maturity. Regarding tree-felling as “a crime little short of murder,” he also told the commissioners that people were not allowed to cut existing trees that he thought to keep for ornamental purposes for the city. But with no means to enforce this, by the time he became president, most trees were lost.

While Jefferson failed to stop Washington’s and L’Enfant’s grand plans, he managed to infuse them with his own ideals. Because of the capital’s remote location and the continuous lack of funds, for many years it wasn’t a bustling metropolis but remained a rural town, reflecting both the federalist ideals in its grand plan, and the republican ones in its atmosphere of a “very agreeable country residence … free from the noise, the heat, the stench & the bustle of a close built town.”

Pennsylvania Avenue, the grandest street in town…

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sources

Nichols, F.D. and Griswold, R.E. (1978) “The City of Washington” in: Thomas Jefferson, Landscape Architect. pp. 38-75.

Wulf, A. (2011) “City of Magnificent Intentions,” in: Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. pp. 124-153.

 

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On the 22nd of november the Landscape Architecture master students went on another of many adventures. This time, the path led to Holwerd, a historical village in Friesland on the coast of the dynamic and beautiful Wadden Sea and to the island on the other side, Ameland.

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Being the biggest tidal area of the world, the Wadden Sea is one of Holland’s prides showing an intriguing interplay of nature’s power and man’s whit. With its rich ecology and its captivating views, the area earned its World Heritage title. And upon experiencing the site, we could all agree.

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Poetry was written all over our two day trip as we drifted away from our student life in Delft and wandered into the lives of ecologists, birdwatchers, the inhabitants of Holwerd and Ameland and the ferry captains. We saw both natures beauty in the astonishing sunset sky, the dancing bird formations and the foggy dunes in the morning light and man’s whit in the terps of Holwerd, the abstract line of the dikes and openness of the polders. When we looked up to the night sky, it was the first time in a while that we could see the stars and when we climbed up to the panorama deck on the ferry, the Wadden Sea showed off its looks presenting the tidal flats.

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It is safe to say that the Wadden Sea area is unique and that hopefully, the next adventure will bring us to another place like this.

Eva Ventura

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A landscape architect for president. How about it? In the first part of this feuilleton this idea turned out to be not as far-fetched as it sounds…. All first American presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be, with Thomas Jefferson as their champion. In part III  we will see how Thomas Jefferson’s close-knitted relationship between gardening, garden design, landscape architecture and politics becomes manifest when he translated the experiments with his own garden Monticello to the University of Virginia, materialising his democratic ideals.

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Jefferson had been involved in every detail of the university, from its foundation to the design of the buildings and gardens. He envisioned a new kind of university, where students and faculty could interact, live and learn all together, and dedicated to educating in practical affairs and public service rather than in more academic professions. It was the first non-sectarian university in the United States, revolutionary for its time in terms of its curriculum, educational methodology and physical form. Both programmatically – the combination of classrooms and living quarters – and spatially – the spreading of the academic buildings into the landscape as a unified, harmonious interrelation – the composition of the university displayed a new way of thinking.

The university, which opened in 1825, is designed around a lawn, terraced down in order to deal with the hilly topography of Charlottesville and flanked on each side by a formal alley of trees, with at the end the library – inspired by the Pantheon in Rome – as the majestic centre-point. The lawn’s edges are defined by a series of educational pavilions with student housing between them, connected by a continuous colonnade. The lawn is the formal garden and main public space of the campus, in opposition to the more private rear gardens of the pavilions.

Its precedents can be found in the quadrangles of the English university towns Oxford and Cambridge. However, unlike the air of exclusiveness of its European predecessors, the American lawn, opening up to the unbounded landscape, reflected both domesticity and community, in an amalgam of an ideal of romantic pastoralism and democratic communalism. It promoted a community ideal, and the critical conception that a place can create community.

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For further reading: Therese O’Malley, “The Lawn in Early American Landscape and Garden Design,” in The American Lawn, ed. George Teyssot (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

 

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“… it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”[1]

A landscape architect for president. How about it? In Thomas Jefferson landscape architect. Part I this idea turned out to be not as far-fetched as it sounds…. All first American presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be, with Thomas Jefferson as their champion. In part II of this feuilleton let us zoom in on his life work: Monticello.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house and plantation, wasn’t the first American pleasure garden, but certainly the most influential one, uniting arts, science, production, experimentation, expression of both power and of democracy, of renewal and tradition.

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Already in college Jefferson started planning his own house and garden, and never stopped planning it for the next 50 years. He inherited most of the land from his father, and his first action was to level the top of what had been his favourite spot since childhood, a hill that rose 170 metres above the river, and which he named Monticello [little mountain]. Two years later, he started building his house, inspired by Palladio. Although some Palladian plantation houses existed at the time, none was as sophisticated as his, and with the house he had a strong statement about who Thomas Jefferson was and would be: fashionable, powerful, looking toward the future. For him Palladian architecture, looking to the ancient past for models of the future, wasn’t old in essence, but modern.

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As with the house, he had been planning the garden from early on. Before beginning to build the house, he was already planting fruit trees on the hillside. His first plan for the grounds laid out an astonishing landscape vision: somewhat lugubrious, fairly decadent and shamelessly romantic for someone who is celebrated as a master of sober and statesmanlike prose, totally unlike the no-nonsense Jefferson he was as a president.

To present an image of his ideas, let me describe one of these never-built phantasies. The graveyard, which he described as a circle surrounded by a hedge of cedar, among ancient oaks interspersed with some “gloomy” evergreens, with “no mark of any human shape that had been there, unless the skeleton of some poor wretch, Who sought that place out to despair and die in.”[2] Temples, a pyramid and statues would mark the graves, with inscriptions in pseudo-classical Latin describing water and grottoes. The whole arrangement would be planted with native beech and aspen trees, and a vista would be cut open to the river. There would be fragrant plants and an Aeolian harp would play mournfully by the shifting winds, unseen.

These and other visions were derived directly from his European books, and from the many travels he made when he was a Minister in Paris, spending most of his time touring gardens in France, England, Holland, Germany. His favourite was the jardin anglais, which he saw as the expression of Enlightenment, as a reaction against the autocracy and the oppressive rule of the privileged few (disregarding the reality of hundreds of poorly paid servants needed to keep up these gardens). The new naturalism was an expression of politics—the progress of civilisation moves toward greater liberty and justice, claiming the political powers that be were “natural” —, of the scientific revolution, geared toward empiricism—true knowledge can only be derived from the physical examination of things themselves—and of a new philosophy, with reason replacing faith and religion as the central organising principle, all of which fitted Jefferson’s views.

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He kept perfecting his house and garden, living for years in a building site, tearing half the building down and replacing it with a taller portico and a single dome (modelled on Villa Rotunda) to make it aesthetically perfect. In the meantime, all his ideas to make money from his large plantation, such as introducing crop-rotation systems and soil-improving crops, did not deliver, whereas the nail-factory that he started, worked by boy slaves, did, presenting a total contradiction of Jefferson’s deepest-held belief that the United States should be a nation of farmers. This made him one of the first factory owners, the forerunner of what would transform the nations’ economy and social structure.

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Despite his ideals, Jefferson was less a farmer than a plant-obsessed gardener of scientific bent, using his garden as an experimental laboratory. Even as an old man, he supervised the plantation almost daily. He was a zealous record-keeper, writing down all his observations, whether the wind direction, the blooming dates of wildflowers, or the life cycle of a destructive insect.

After retiring at Monticello, all his previously designed, unexecuted plans eventually led to the plan that was put in action. Working carefully with native material, although he was constantly experimenting with exotic plants, he created a very original version of a landscape garden. Based on his love for botany, agriculture and surveying, in this final vision he imagined the hilltop as a ferme ornée, an ornamental farm, with temples, clumps of trees, a swooping drive surrounded by flower beds called “roundabout”, a grove, a fish pond, a vegetable garden, fruit garden, and orchards. Outbuildings were moved out of sight, vistas were created, and the wooden fence replaced by a ha-ha.

Monticello is the quintessential expression of the ideal of a virtuous rural retirement, of a country of farmers in the tradition of Virgil’s “Georgics.” The rational exploitation of agricultural lands for profit (utility) married to a concern with pleasure and taste (beauty).

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For further reading: Graham, S. (2011). American Eden; From Monticello to Central Park to our backyards: what our gardens tell us about who we are. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[1] Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782.

[2] From Jefferson’s Memorandum Book

In the present publicity excess on the American presidential elections, Trump versus Hillary, I can’t help fantasizing about the ideal president. What about a landscape architect for president? Well, it has been done before, and very successfully… Actually all first presidents were gardeners/farmers, using their own garden to experiment with and express their ideas on what the future America should be. Each in their own way made what Adams called “the garden of a patriot”, where the mundane activities of sowing and planting became imbued with the idea of nation building.

The very first president George Washington was a professional surveyor, discovering firsthand an ability to identify and select the best plots of land for purchase, an especially important consideration in colonial America, where land equaled power. Also, he studied and implemented improved farming methods throughout his life, an initial interest driven by his own needs to earn a living and improve his family estate Mount Vernon. He had a strong interest in landscape design and architecture throughout his life, and after returning home from his service in the Revolutionary War, he redesigned the landscape at Mount Vernon, adopting the less formal, more naturalistic style of the 18th century English landscape garden. Based on a plan gifted to him by Samuel Vaughan, he reshaped walks, roads, and lawns; cut vistas through the forest, and planted hundreds of native trees and shrubs. Eighteenth-century visitors to Mount Vernon were delighted by bountiful offerings of fresh vegetables and fruits, and reveled in after-dinner walks amongst all manner of flowering plants. From the beginning, trees had been emblematic of the new nation, and when in 1783, with liberty at last achieved, Washington could return to Mount Vernon, his first act was to embark upon large-scale plantings of native American trees. He wrote to friends and relations all over the 13 states to request specimens of indigenous species – balsam firs from the north, eastern hemlocks and white pines from the north-east, live oaks and magnolias from the south – which, added to the cockspur thorns, redbuds and other trees that grew wild on his Virginia estate, would form an image of the new nation in microcosm. Where earlier colonists had spurned native species, Mount Vernon was to become what Andrea Wulf calls “the first truly American garden”.[1]

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Mount Vernon

 

After Washington, John Adams was elected president, the first president to live in the White House, which was then, like most of Washington, surrounded by mud flats. However, apart from adding a vegetable plot he did not spend enough time there to alter the grounds. But at his retirement he returned to his family farm in Massachusetts, where he spent his time farming. “I begin now to think all time lost that is not employed in farming; innocent, healthy, gay, elegant amusement! Enchanting employment! How my imagination roves over my rocky mountains, and through my brushy meadows.”[2] Much of his land was farmland, with ornamental plants near the house. Adams was no landscape gardener on the scale or with the intensity of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson; the only large intervention he made was the creation of a ha-ha, creating the effect of a long, uninterrupted view. He proposed naming his farm Peacefield, for the sense of peace he enjoyed there, but also in commemoration for the peace he had helped to win for his country.

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Adams Farm

Where Adams saw the urban entrepreneurial elite of merchants and traders as the key to the nation’s prosperity, the third president Thomas Jefferson thought the greatest service a man could render his country was to introduce a useful plant to its culture. Since his travels to Europe, Jefferson had been an avid collector of books and architecture and gardening, which he used to shape the Palladian splendour of his estate Monticello.

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Monticello

Jefferson was followed up by James Madison, who, after his term as president, retired to his Virginia estate Montpelier, where he managed a large plantation and devoted himself to the preservation of the environment by conserving timber resources and once-fertile land that had been depleted from overuse. In 1818 he made a prescient speech on the subject, filled with advice for living off the land without destroying it. Humankind, he said, could not expect nature to be “made subservient to the use of man”: man, he believed, must find a place within “the symmetry of nature” without destroying it.[3] His garden, like those of others laid out by the founding fathers, remains today as proof of his dedication to the natural world.

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Montpelier

My personal favourite is Jefferson. Although the title landscape architect had not been created before his death in 1826, he was certainly qualified for that appellation. Not only did he design his estate Monticello and his summer house Poplar Forest, but with his design for the University of Virginia he created the prototype for the American University, he played a large role in the design and realisation of the city of Washington and established the grid by which means the American wilderness was colonised.

A feuilleton.

[1] Andrea Wulf (2011) Founding Gardeners. The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation.

[2] Letters of John Adams Addressed to His Wife, ed. Adams, 2:139.

[3] “Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, Virginia” (1818).

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Roads and landscape

The road in the landscape is a  multi-faceted subject, as we could read in the previous posts by Gerdy Verschuure and Steffen Nijhuis. Driving as a means to experience the landscape is one of these aspects, which sometimes has been exalted to an art in itself.

When traveling through the United States, one of the greatest experiences is the travel itself: driving days on end through expansive landscapes on roads straight as an arrow where the landscape morphology permits, or following the contours of the natural landscape where it doesn’t. This fall I fulfilled a long since wish: driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Starting from the northernmost tip, we drove south for two days, zigzagging from breath-taking view to breath-taking view, until a flat tire forced us to return to the inhabited world.

 

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Parkways

The tradition of building parkways goes back a long way, to one of the godfathers of landscape architecture. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had created Prospect Park in 1868, they felt that, although the park was recognized as a magnificent natural reserve, it lacked any corresponding system of roads leading to it. So they created the Eastern Park-Way, the first parkway. Parkways – wide avenues, with a differentiation in lanes for pedestrians, horse riders and carriages, supported by planting – were not quite parks in themselves, but not just streets either, and became known as ‘ribbon parks’. In Olmsteds days the car did not play a big role yet, but in the following decades, when mass-production of automobiles made motorised traffic widely available, the idea that one could enjoy nature while driving on the road remained an issue. Half a century later the concept of the urban parkway was extended to the scale of the country, by creating grand scenic parkways – roads across the land leading into the wilderness, allowing independent journeys into National Parks which were previously accessible by public transport only.

 

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The Blue Ridge Parkway

One of the first scenic parkways to be built was the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. It runs between Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park – a distance of 469 miles. Stretching across the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains range, it was designed to respond to the contours of the land. It was designed and constructed in sections: as land was purchased by the states, rights-of-way were approved and contracts secured through the Bureau of Public Roads. Construction began in 1935, and when work halted due to the outbreak of World War II, some 170 miles were complete. In the 1950s construction resumed, and by 1968 the parkway was complete, except for a 7.7-mile stretch. It was not until this section was completed in 1987 that the Blue Ridge Parkway fully opened, 52 years after the project began.

Essential for the experience of the parkway are its rest-stops, positioned at a bend in the road which opens up to an unexpected wide view, or just before a tunnel, which as an impressive feat of engineering, is considered a worthwhile view in itself.

As befits a true National Park the Blue Ridge Parkway received its own sign, expressing the value ascribed to what is basically just a road. The sign highlights a remarkable landscape architectural aspect, repeated over the full length of the road: often the forest is cut away to allow for the view, leaving one last tree standing, creating depth in the perspective and anchoring the viewer to the place in relation to the horizon.

 

Nature experience  

While the urban parkway introduced the benefits of nature to the city, the ever-present problem of cross-traffic managed to erode the ideals of a continuous passage in nature. The creation of national parkways allowed for a complete removal of the parkway from any reference to urban contexts. In the design of the parkways, infrastructural space is considered a valuable territory on its own, carefully choreographed in the landscape, interconnecting parks and park areas into a coherent system, in such a way that motorists could enjoy nature while in transit. More than just a feat of engineering, these infrastructural lines can be seen as a cultural phenomenon where movement is the motor of a physical and visual experience.

 

References

Engle, R.L. (2006) The Greatest Single Feature… A Sky-Line Drive. 75 years of Mountaintop Motorway. Luray, VA: Shenandoah National Parks Association.

Zapatka, C. (1995). The American Landscape. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Last summer students of the Master track Landscape Architecture of the TU Delft could follow a summer course in the Tuinen Mien Ruys in Dedemsvaart, made possible by a generous subsidy of the NHBos Foundation. It was a hands-on workshop in a real life situation addressing the practical skill of planting design, a basic skill for any landscape architect. We thought it wise to start at the smallest scale: the design of a border. The students experimented with different angles to approach this topic, playfully gaining knowledge of the formal, technical and biological aspects of plant species, which can be used in different circumstances.

The Tuinen Mien Ruys – a lifetime’s work of Mien Ruys, one of the most important garden architects in the 20th century – contain 30 gardens with experiments in design, plants and materials, presenting an overview of garden architecture from 1924 to the present day. The location was chosen because here the students could both study planting design in real life, and create a design that could be executed in situ, working back and forth between studying real situations and own design experiments.

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Early July, with a nearby campsite as base, eight students came together and worked for an intensive week, studying plants, planting combinations and compositions, under the guidance of both teachers of the TU Delft – Frits van Loon, Nico Tillie and Saskia de Wit – and a garden expert from the Tuinen – Conny den Hollander. Each day had the same structure, thus gaining a step-by-step insight in the characteristics and behaviour of plants and planting compositions: a guided tour with a different theme, studying and drawing existing situations of plant combinations, experimenting with new plant combinations. At the end of the week each student had made a full planting plan, of which one was chosen for execution. The chosen design, made by Pierre Oskam, gives a nice twist to the classical border, built up from low to high. Interestingly, the starting point is the movement of pedestrians.

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Molinia caerulea ‘Moorhexe’ with Potentilla x hopwoodiana, Crocosmia masoniorum,  Thalictrum delavayi

Three months later we returned to the gardens, armed with boots, gloves and rainproof clothes, in order to execute the chosen design. This was supervised by Marjolijn Storm, a young gardener in training from nearby AOC De Groene Welle, who was learning how to supervise a gardener’s team. The ground had been dug prior to the execution, and then dug for a second time, in order to give a malleable, weed-free plant base. Marjolijn had already marked the areas with rope, and the plants were waiting for us, lined up in neat boxes. All we had to do was space them out, put them in the soil, and then rake over and over again.

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So now we have a TU experimental border in Dedemsvaart, still looking young and fragile, and we can’t wait for it to grow. The gardeners of the Tuinen Mien Ruys will maintain the garden for the next couple of years. Who knows, when we return 2 years from now, we will find Pierres drawing in real life…

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